Five questions about the bullpen

January, 27, 2014
Jan 27
12:23
PM PT
One of the themes of this Dodgers off-season has been to bake as little risk as possible into the cake, to patch every hole before it exists.

Nowhere has that philosophy been more obvious than in the team’s moves to water-proof the bullpen, which is never entirely possible, of course. Many other – if not all other – clubs might have brought in on a veteran or two to complement closer Kenley Jansen and the returning relievers from 2013.

They would have then used spring training to sort out the young contenders for roles – in the Dodgers’ case, guys like Javy Guerra, Scott Elbert, Onelki Garcia, Jose Dominguez and Yimi Garcia – for one or two of the open roster spots.

Not the Dodgers. They went out and spent more than $20 million on an unpredictable commodity, relief pitchers, bringing back Brian Wilson, J.P. Howell and Jamey Wright (after a year away) and adding Chris Perez. Now, they’re so stocked with veterans on guaranteed contracts that not even Chris Withrow, who was a key late-inning arm by September and October, figures to have a guaranteed spot.

The impetus is clear. The Dodgers felt they left themselves thin going into last season and young pitchers like Jansen and Paco Rodriguez wound up pitching more frequently than the team considered ideal.

Now, they will have many of those young arms standing by at Triple-A or Double-A. If a veteran struggles badly, the Dodgers could move quickly to replace him, though it will take a little roster juggling.

Even after all that effort and expense, bullpens are never predictable. Twelve days before these guys report to Camelback Ranch for spring training, let’s take a look at some of the question the Dodgers’ relievers will have to answer as the season moves along.

Will the four-closer thing work?

The Dodgers do not, in fact, have four closers. They have one: Jansen. And he should feel absolutely no fear about losing his job. In four seasons, Jansen has a strikeout-per-nine-innings rate of 14.0. Mariano Rivera’s career rate was 8.2.

He is a swing-and-miss machine.

However, there is the very real potential that, if Jansen has a few bad outings in April and May and the veterans are performing well, reporters will begin asking manager Don Mattingly about Jansen’s grasp on the job. It’s just too easy with three former closers beneath Jansen on the depth chart.

Perez, Wilson and Brandon League, between them, have 377 career saves. So, even if Jansen’s hold on the job is absolute all season, will Mattingly be able to find roles for the other three that will keep them feeling both valued and focused? For now, Wilson figures to hold down the eighth inning and Perez the seventh, but roles inevitably slip and slide during a season.

What about those workloads?

The Dodgers had three of the nine National League pitchers to make at least 75 appearances last season. They let one of them, Ronald Belisario, go – and that may not be a coincidence. The other two were Jansen and Rodriguez.

Jansen kept right on ticking, but Rodriguez showed serious wear and tear by September. It was his worst month statistically and his results didn’t improve from there. After a rough outing in Atlanta in the National League Division Series, Rodriguez didn’t even make the Dodgers’ NLCS roster.

Will Rodriguez’s arm and body bounce back this spring? More importantly, will the fatigue on Jansen’s arm begin to show up?

Will Perez be a distraction?

Last June, Perez and his wife were arrested for possession of marijuana. He pled no contest, was fined $250 and was placed on one year probation. Perez entered MLB's drug treatment program and has undergone regular drug tests. Over the final two months, his ERA shot from 2.41 to 4.33.

He also raised some hackles in Cleveland by criticizing the team’s fans. The Indians released him on Oct. 31.

“It's an opportunity for him to re-establish himself in a high-profile, big market with high expectations and he's looking forward to do that," said general manager Ned Colletti after the team signed Perez for $2.3 million. "He fessed up to his transgressions, was remorseful and contrite with how he dealt with it and wants to make amends for it."

Is the roster too inflexible?

One of the nice things about having a bullpen of younger pitchers is they tend to have options. If one pitcher is struggling badly and somebody else at Triple-A figures something out and can’t be hit, the team can simply buy two plane tickets and fix the problem.

The Dodgers won’t find making changes so easy with practically an entire bullpen on guaranteed, major-league contracts. It seemed like all last summer, Dodgers fans clamored for the team to demote League, the closer turned struggling mop-up man. It wasn’t going to happen. It couldn’t happen, not without League’s consent.

Veteran players cannot be demoted without their permission. If you have a problem with it, talk to the players association, who negotiated the collective bargaining agreement.

For the Dodgers to create a bullpen spot this season, they’re going to need to put a reliever on the 15-day disabled list or, in an extreme case, designate the pitcher for assignment or outright release him. That inflexibility could put a hard ceiling on the young relievers in the minor leagues and, perhaps, blunt their motivation.

Can you really predict bullpen performances?

With all the experience, the raw stuff and the different looks the Dodgers have assembled, it feels like they’ve taken most of the uncertainty out of the process of controlling the final few innings. But no matter how carefully you plan, that’s never going to happen. The bullpen tends to be the most volatile part of a team.

Going into 2013, MLB.com ranked the Washington Nationals’ as the third-best bullpen in the game after that team signed Rafael Soriano. Relief was a season-long worry for Washington, with the Nats finishing with the 17th best bullpen in the majors. Things happen.

So, while the Dodgers spared no effort or expense, they are perfectly aware they were working with a chaotic system. Questions will persist between now and November.

Mark Saxon

ESPNLosAngeles.com
Mark Saxon is a staff writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. He spent six years at the Orange County Register, and began his career at the Oakland Tribune, where he started an 11-year journey covering Major League Baseball. He has also covered colleges, including USC football and UCLA basketball.

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